Recent church burnings raise larger issue

2/14/2006

A UMNS Report
By Kelly Martini*

Responding to the recent arsons of 10 Alabama churches, United Methodists are joining the call to focus on broader issues of church burnings that are continuing nationally.

All of the Alabama churches burned since Feb. 3 housed Baptist congregations. Five of the churches have predominantly black congregations and five have predominantly white membership.

The Women's Division, United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, has long worked on this issue through the National Coalition for Burned Churches. Targeted church burnings are not unusual but have continued in recent years, the division noted.

According to Rose Johnson-Mackey, program director for the National Coalition for Burned Churches, the coalition has documented more than 1,700 arsons, attempted arsons, bombings and suspicious church fires across the United States from 1990 to 2000.

Within this same period, coalition records show about 88 cases were reported in Alabama. More recent data reveals that from 2000 through 2006, more than 600 cases of church arsons have been documented.

Those figures are most likely low, Mackey said, because they represent statistics that the coalition has been able to collect solely on its own without any central depository for data collection. She believes the figures are much higher.

What the figures demonstrate is that church burnings happen in the same areas of the country and they're not being stopped, she added. Small volunteer fire departments and local police do not have the resources to properly investigate church arsons, so the incidents are being overlooked or reported as if they are minor.

The cluster of burned churches in Alabama is symptomatic of a larger problem to which the nation must pay attention, according to Mackey and other leaders. Church arsons, whether prosecuted as hate crimes or not, are intended to terrorize entire communities, since often the soul of the people is housed in their place of worship, Mackey said.

"We must move the nation to a new place on this issue, a place of commitment," she said. "The U.S. must commit to protect the right of congregations - regardless of color, ethnicity or nationality - to worship in peace, free from the threat of terrorism caused by arsons."

In Alabama, United Methodists have been responding to the recent arsons by offering space, donations and other support to their burned-out neighbors.

Bishop Will Willimon, who leads the denomination's North Alabama Annual (regional) Conference, said in a Feb. 3 statement that United Methodists "join in the grief of our Christian brothers and sisters at the damage to their church buildings." He said he asked the conference treasurer and staff to send a donation from the conference to the affected congregations, and he urged United Methodists to lift those churches in prayer.

Christians can focus on the recent church burnings by:

  • Advocating for equitable dedication of federal resources to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies so that they can investigate church arsons of all burned churches, including the ones that do not receive media attention.
  • Focusing on churches that have been burned but not received national media exposure; pushing local authorities to report the fires to federal agencies; and sending the information to the National Coalition for Burned Churches for registry and tracking (www.ncfbc.org).
  • Building upon the work of United Methodist Women to track hate crimes and church burnings in their communities and to provide data to such organizations as the Center for Democratic Renewal and the Coalition for Burned Churches. Newspaper clippings of church burnings and hate crimes can be mailed to the Women's Division, Office of Racial Justice, 475 Riverside Dr. #1503, New York, NY 10115.
  • Creating a forum for church members to come together and share stories and issues around church burnings. United Methodist Women has been a partner with the Charleston, S.C.,-based National Coalition for Burned Churches since 1997. In the past several years, the organization has been involved in data collection around hate crimes and church burnings. It also helped fund the resource "When Hate Groups Comes to Town," published by the Center for Democratic Renewal.


*Martini is executive secretary of communications for the Women's Division, United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.


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